How Agile methodology has redefined the understanding of business in Indian IT industry

While it is commonly accepted that a business degree is not required for project management, those times have quietly gone by a long time back. What has caused this dramatic change is the concept of outsourcing. To get to the bottom of this, it is imperative to understand what project management is.

Every organization can be broadly split into business and management verticals. Based on the amount of business it is doing in the current year, the organization sets revenue and profit targets for the next year. Everything that happens in an organization in a financial year is the mad rush to meet or exceed those targets, which is the responsibility of the CEO of the organization. Business strategies are created to meet the targets which in turn creates objectives and goals that cascades down the organization’s hierarchy. It is essential to understand here that companies create profits in two ways, one through generation of revenue and the other through savings on its expenses. Execution of business strategies which leads to profit creation is done through projects. So essentially project management is for creating revenue and saving expenses for the company.

I was freshly minted into IT outsourcing way back in 2004 and was working on an IT support and service delivery project for a European client which had 400 odd software applications running in the virtual environment. One day, one of the applications stopped working and the ticket raised to report the issue was of medium priority. I was in the technical team at that time and we took our own sweet time to resolve the issue. When we reported back that the application was working again, the client’s employee told us that it was an invoicing application and they couldn’t take new orders for half a day. The situation was a little complicated. The client had outsourced their IT services and support for the first time. The priority matrix for the applications was not defined clearly because of which the client’s employee did not raise the ticket with the correct priority. But most importantly it was the lack of awareness of the technical team working on the issue about the purpose of the application. It was the first time I realized two facts about outsourcing : 1) It has separated business objectives from IT implementations and this is why 2) IT has become an industry in itself in India.

Fast forward to 2010 and I was working for an IT giant and had taken a team to a client’s premise for knowledge acquisition and was back in India to set up part of their support and service delivery team. Even this client was outsourcing its entire IT environment for the first time. I had looked back at all the mistakes I had come across through the years and had ensured that I understood the client’s business environment and objectives as much as I can. When I communicated to my management team in India that to provide better support the technical team needs to understand the client’s business environment I was ridiculed and threatened with pulling the project from me. All they wanted from me was to make my team work harder without knowing what they were doing. I resigned immediately, completed all the tasks required to set up of the team much before expected time and left. There was no way I was going to tolerate and live with a short sighted and overbearing management team.

Those 6 years were extremely insightful times for me. I was sent on an onsite assignment to the Netherlands in 2008. I was in a team full of Dutch people and I had a Dutch team leader. They do not normally speak a lot about work and the team leader would give me a task and not even ask for a status update. I realized quickly that people were assigned tasks according to their experience and abilities so the onus was on me to estimate the time I need, finish the task and report back to him. But he would answer any number of questions I had about the task. I understood that it was up to the person working on the task to understand as much as he/she could about the different aspects of the task. This behavior becomes more enhanced in the Scandinavian countries. Those people hardly ask anything and they open their mouths only to answer questions.

With all these experiences in mind, I went to do a one year MBA program to increase my skills and knowledge to have better understanding of the business environments of companies. In those intervening 2-3 years the IT environment underwent momentous changes. Fundamental to it were two aspects. Emergence of the Cloud and Agile methodology as the preferred way of project management. Agile has in fact helped to plug the vast distance between business requirements and IT implementations in India. Agile works essentially on two aspects: 1) the idea to market strategy and 2) the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept. When there is a new idea, the objective is to get it out to the market asap as a product because it is foolish to assume that no one else will have the same idea. Fundamental to this is the strategy to create the product with the features that would most likely to be in demand in the market and can quickly gain traction. This is where the concept of MVP comes in. It is because of these two factors that Agile has become the backbone of all startup initiatives.

Agile is used in the software industry primarily to create software applications. Rewind upwards and companies need IT applications either to generate revenue or save costs. For both, Agile works best but only if the objectives are clearly defined in the business case document. If the objective is creating revenue, the business case should clearly define which features of the application would result in maximum generation of revenue. Then the Product Owner can create a product backlog correspondingly and ensure that those features are developed first so that the product can be quickly released into the market. Even in the case of the objective being to save on expenses, the same rule applies. Develop those features of the application that would create maximum savings and integrate the application into the environment quickly.

Agile also defines a role called Scrum Master whose primary objective is to manage the sprint backlog and the sprint sessions. The role also has the responsibility of keeping all management overheads away from the development team so that they are not distracted and can fully focus on developing the product. This is exactly what I did with my team back in 2010. I filtered all the noise away from my team, took the heat from all meetings and management overheads, managed their work loads and allowed them to work freely. This did help significantly to finish the tasks required to complete setting up of the team.

I didn’t know any project management methodologies back then but I worked based on my experiences and commonsense. These methodologies were created long after people started trying out different ways to manage projects and it has never been the other way around. Agile has created the situation where understanding business requirements for all stakeholders is on a very high priority now and novices or less experienced people cannot be team members because of the extremely short and intense time spans of sprint sessions unless they are skilled and nimble enough. Both these aspects could be at loggerheads with the traditional IT industry environment in India which focuses more on technical than business aspects and makes use of less experienced people in projects to save their own costs.

All of this vindicates my decision and reasons to take up the MBA program at that time. Companies abroad have chosen to not sponsor work permits for me, Indian companies and the IT industry in particular have ignored and disowned me and I am having a tough time establishing myself as a freelance consultant. But having vision and pursuing it always creates short term pain and long term gains.

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The relationship and disconnect between business and projects

In an interview a few years back for a project management role, the interviewer asked me what project management was. I was taken aback a bit. First of all that’s too generic a question to ask an experienced candidate. Second, project management is such a vast area that it is not possible to explain in a minute or so what it is unless I were to record and playback what is known as industry standard definitions. So I replied that project management is the management of execution of business strategies. The interviewer looked lost for a moment and for a very good reason.

The evolution of the IT industry has created mayhem and consternation in the understanding of business and projects. The mid section of the IT industry has swelled up with managers and is bursting at it’s seams. The hierarchy and designations are complicated and ridiculous. Even more confusing are designations that are total mismatches to the roles. I have worked with the designation of Senior Consultant and the role had got absolutely nothing to do with consulting. Then there are companies with Project Manager designation but the role would be as an individual contributor. What would make sense is that a project would have a team and the manager of the project would also manage the team. The designation of Business Analyst is even more bewildering. Fundamental requirements are to have in-depth knowledge of some software applications.

In one of the case studies during my MBA program I had read about a company whose founder and CEO had approached a venture capitalist (VC) for investment. After due diligence, one of the conditions put forward by the VC was to appoint a new CEO for the company. The founder refused and walked away. Six months later, he came back to the VC and agreed. The VC had wanted him to focus on the products and services his company was offering and let someone else handle the business and financial aspects. So every company has a top management team that walks, talks and breathes only business and money.  It is here that business strategies get created with the objective of better financial outcomes.

I use a simple analogy when talking about business strategies. If I get stamped on my foot, my foot doesn’t cry. The sound comes from my mouth. Similarly if there is a problem in business the red bulb may not necessarily be flashing from the problem area. This is why understanding the business problem is so crucial. Business problem could also be a new venture for the company without proper understanding of moving ahead. Digging deeper into the business problem has direct impact on the quality of business strategy development. But having the best business strategy amounts to nothing without taking action on it and execution of business strategy is a different beast altogether.

One critical aspect of having different functions inside organizations comes into focus during execution of business strategies. The business strategy could have a strategy for the sales team which in turn could result in a strategy for the finance team and so on. Once strategies for different functions are established, then comes their execution. It could be as minimal as a small change without any consequences. But where there are financial outcomes then there would be accompanying risks as well. This is where the whole premise of project kicks in. So projects are essentially execution of business strategies with the objective to create positive financial outcomes. The execution of a business strategy can be broadly visualized as a change management program with several projects managed and executed within its boundaries.

Every project is intended to create a positive financial outcome so I visualize every project manager as having a small cloud of money over his/her head. A senior manager who manages several project managers would then be having an accumulated bigger money cloud over his/her head. Scale this up and the CEO will have the biggest money cloud over his/her head. The divide between creation and execution of business strategies has given rise to the concept of outsourcing. MNCs develop the entire premise of projects before shipping out to their factories and back offices where the projects are executed to create products and services.

Better understanding of business strategies and organizational requirements has a direct bearing on project management. But project managers usually do not get their sights that far and are not expected to stretch their understanding beyond the boundaries of their projects. This is why I believe projects either fail or project outcomes do not result in positive business outcomes. Outsourcing has only complicated and compromised the purpose of projects. A project manager in another corner of the world may not have any idea about the intended outcomes of the business strategies which has given rise to the project he/she is managing. Early in my career I had to resolve a problem with an IT application of a client and according to the SLA with the client I had 3 hours, so I worked on other more important issues. When I finally reported the resolution, the client’s staff lamented about how their work was stuck and the amount of business they lost in those 3 hours. Poor understanding of client’s business environment and requirements coupled with poorer understanding and communication were the reasons.

The relevance and importance of projects and project managers should never be undervalued. In India business degrees are not required to manage and execute projects. This in itself shows the disconnect between business strategies and projects. This is why the growth of project managers gets restricted to the project and program management levels and very few get to break into the top management. This can be observed from how companies hire for executive level positions from other companies rather than their own employees growing through the ranks into those positions.